Politics & Policy

Obama’s Political Prayer

(Win McNamee/Getty)
His remarks were meant to establish his own moral superiority.

As we have seen many times, there is no moment so grave that our current president will not to use it to get up on his high horse, take a shot at Western civilization, and emphasize his own moral superiority.

Why were his comments at the National Prayer Breakfast on “terrible deeds in the name of Christ” so deeply offensive? It wasn’t easy to say right away. We have two minds that work simultaneously, our feeling mind and our thinking mind; they nearly always reach the same conclusion, but our feeling minds often get there first by a mile — they feel instantly that something is wrong — and we are left sputtering inside, angry, in need of a few moments to say why. Here is why:

The president used the Inquisition and the Crusades, among other events, to teach us why we had better not get up on our “high horses” (which so many of us have been poised to do) and start denouncing Islamist jihadists without blaming ourselves too, for our own religion-inspired crimes. Such as?

The Inquisition leaps to mind. The great days of the Spanish branch came in 1492 and the decades following. Horrible crimes were committed by these religious extremists (as Josh Earnest would put it), but were they real Catholics? That sort of question no doubt requires a ruling by the president himself. So perhaps hold off torching your local tapas restaurant until you hear from him . . . 

Of course, many Christians condemned the Inquisition and its methods at the time. Be that as it may: it happened so long ago that the trail is cold. We all have a duty to know history and remember and apply our knowledge. But sides drawn up and passions aroused in 1492 are not big factors in modern life.

A sensitive-minded Christian has every reason to grieve over those long-ago events — and perhaps in a certain, limited sense, to feel guilt over them. But the president obviously doesn’t feel the slightest grief or guilt; he was telling us what we ought to feel. He was trivializing the barbarity of ISIS by connecting it to the fossil remains of long-extinct Western behaviors, trivializing ISIS by tying it to infamous ancient crimes that have, for the average inhabitant of the earth, no emotional significance whatsoever.

He was scolding us in advance, not for what we had done but for what it was clear to him, in his wisdom, that we were thinking about doing.

Yet if his goal had been merely to rub out all rage and bitterness against ISIS as if it were a cigarette butt to be casually flipped to the ground and squashed by the presidential foot, he wouldn’t have achieved half the offensiveness he actually managed. For the president had no interest in claiming his own share in the guilt of the Inquisitors; his goal was to demonstrate his long heritage of victimhood and show off his moral superiority. He explained that the Inquisition had led via slavery right to Jim Crow; and where Jim Crow is concerned, he embodies all suffering victims (not that he actually has any ancestors who were slaves).

Another outrageous maneuver to trivialize a barbaric murder by ISIS — at a time when Yazidis are fighting for their lives (“The Yazidis still face catastrophe” was a recent headline on Al Jazeera America, of all places), when Yazidis have seen the enemies of ISIS raped, tortured, enslaved, murdered in cold blood, and now burnt alive, President Obama says we must not forget to apply the lesson of Jim Crow.

Could he be serious? It is indecent to the black victims of Jim Crow to make their sufferings seem modest by comparison, yet they were modest by comparison with what ISIS is doing. They were also real, deep, and shameful; the nation has renounced them absolutely; their relevance to ISIS is zero.

The president missed the point, as he usually does. One thing in fact does connect the Crusades to the Inquisition to ISIS, one point does resonate deeply today: The Crusaders murdered Jews, the Inquisitors murdered Jews, and Islamist terrorists love, above all, to murder Jews. So there actually was a thread tying the whole thing together, but the president had no clue what it was. He was too eager to caution us against mounting those high horses that we are all holding ready.

But no one is actually standing by to denounce Islam on the basis of Christian superiority over the last two millennia, which means the president made it up out of whole cloth — or else it is a hallucination; perhaps he can’t tell the difference any more. So long as he has made his own superiority to all petty passions clear, so long as his own moral farsightedness is reaffirmed yet again, the speech is a success. No littler man has ever been president.

— David Gelernter is a professor of computer science at Yale University.

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